Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington


Thanks to Sarah Uthoff who sent me this link and suggested it would make a good addition to the blog. Credit for the research goes to David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. He writes, in part:

The story begins the icy night in December 1776 when General George Washington decided to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton. Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, sought to fight the Redcoats, but Washington deemed him too young and ordered him to look after the horses, asking Jocko to keep a lantern blazing along the Delaware so the company would know where to return after battle. Many hours later, Washington and his men returned to their horses that were tied up to Graves, who had frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist. Washington was so moved by the young boy’s devotion to the revolutionary cause he commissioned a statue of the ‘Faithful Groomsman’ to stand in Graves’s honor at the general’s estate in Mount Vernon.

I have heard this account from many African Americans and it is frequently cited on Internet sites. It is a heroic tale and, like many such tales, its historical accuracy is questionable. In a 1987 letter to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, concluded that “the story is apocryphal; conveying a message about heroism among blacks during the Revolutionary War and General Washington’s humanitarian concerns, but it is not based on an actual incident. Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves, nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington’s horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period. Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors over the years and there has never been any indication of anything resembling a ‘jockey’ statue on the grounds. I have put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point.” 

To read David Pilgrim’s entire footnoted (and very interesting!) research paper, see



7 Responses to Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington

  1. Bill Johnson says:

    I always wonder why African slaves are routinely referred to as “African-Americans” by educators and guides. The story does not specify that the mythical “Jocko” was or wasn’t a slave so it might be a moot point as far as this story goes. But if one goes to Mount Vernon, the Docent will describe the slave quarters as having been used by African-Americans. Are we too afraid to say “slave” and try to soften it by saying African-Americans? I object to hyphenated terms when used to describe X-Americans, you either consider yourself an American or you don’t. But specifically in this case, the slaves were considered property, not even people, so how could some now consider them as Americans. They were slaves, or African slaves, period. Am I way wrong in thinking this way?

    • Bill, society at large today takes the lead of prominent leaders of people of color when it comes to what term to use. Colored people used to be a widely used term that is now racist while people of color is politically correct. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the term negro, but then with the rise of the black power movement black became the term. And then it went to Afro-American and after a few years Jesse Jackson said Afro was a hairstyle and the term was African. Many people whose ancestors were kept as slaves object to the term slave saying the people were not slaves, slave did not define them, but they were enslaved and that defined their status, so, now enslaved people rather than slaves is the term used. These are the terms set by the people who are ethnically the ones connected with the term, or ancestors of those whose status was that of being enslaved. I can’t answer for them why they make the choices they choose, but this answers your question as to why not refer to people as slaves. People seen as leaders by many of the ancestors of those begin described say slave is pejorative and so the term is eschewed.

      As a side note, a decade ago I had an acquaintance with someone whose work with the Dept of the Interior had him in close frequent contact with people on reservations. I asked him what was the term they preferred — Native American (which describes nativity, ie., anyone born in America, and not ethnicity) or Indigenous (first people) American? To my surprise he replied “Indian.That’s what they call themselves.”

  2. Eva says:

    I recently heard a story that the jockeys were placed by homes to indicate stops on the Underground Railroad.

  3. Sepideh says:

    I have been reading your blog since buying your book around December, and there is one thing in this entry that is not clear. The Mount Vernon where the Enoch Pratt Free Library resides is a neighborhood in Baltimore. It is not Mount Vernon, Virginia.

  4. Pam Williams says:

    African American jockeys are this country’s first sports heroes. They were the men, early on they were, of course, enslaved men, who took care of and trained racing horses….in particular, high strung blooded (Thoroughbred) horses. They ate with them, slept with them, mended them and trained them. They knew and understood the animal, and hence became the riders-jockeys-of them. Black men, up until the early 20th century, the premiere riders. Jealousy and Jim Crow brought an end to their history. Some made incredible money, won great races, a few, were (James Winkfield f or one) internationally famous. There is a book, “Great Black Jockeys” by Ed Hotaling, and a ton of stuff on the internet about them.

    I don’t know when the use of these statues began, but it raises a question (and some time back, a debate) as to these statues actually being an iconization of these men and their skills.

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